Originally published 21 March 2017
There are a lot of good articles currently published and numerous smart and well-informed people who have written on this topic (download the Comprehensive Bibliography to see what I am talking about). Despite these other sources, I feel that I need to write a brief assessment of predictions for a post-Mosul/Raqqa ISIS* world because people have asked for my opinion and this is a way to capture that opinion for future reference.
Assuming that Mosul and Raqqa fall in the next several weeks or months I believe there are five possible outcomes. Of course, reality is that a sixth outcome will happen that will include to some degree or another elements of each of the five I mention. I encourage a reader to see the five as part of the nutrition pyramid from which they can build a healthy meal of regional prediction.
1. ISIS Goes Away
First, ISIS simply goes away - it dies, never to rise again. This is the least likely. Simply stated, the business model that ISIS has demonstrated since 2012 has been so successful that the group ceasing to exist in full seems incredibly unlikely. That said, it is still possible and in some form it may be likely. For a short while maybe. Or many of the participants may follow this path.
2. ISIS Returns to an Earlier Form of Insurgency
Second, ISIS stops trying to be a state and returns to an earlier form of insurgency. This would resemble something like the insurgency seen in Iraq in 2003-2011. Attacks, bombings, kidnappings, intimidation, etc. with the intent of retaining consciousness in the minds of the public, but not such a burden as to engender a national or international level response from major security forces. That insurgency in Iraq went through multiple phases and types over the seven or more years that it existed so this is a broad swath of possibilities.
3. ISIS Waits it Out
Third, ISIS goes into the desert and caves and waits it out. Despite what people see on television and movies, even modern technology cannot see everything everywhere. There are places in eastern Syria, northern Iraq, and more likely the cities of both countries where a dedicated group could blend in with the locals and simply wait out the current international pressure. That pressure will die out and then ISIS can come back. The Western powers and their regional lackeys (as seen from the perspective of ISIS) do not have the patience of spiritual conviction and so they will eventually tire. In some ways this is similar to elements of Maoist revolutionary war theory where the revolutionary moves back and forth through phases as needed. This would be analogous to moving back to phase one (building the foundation) and then resetting the conditions for movement to phase two (insurgency) and phase three (conventional attacks). Normally, I do not believe that ISIS or al-Qaeda based groups follow Maoist theory in detail, however, I use it here as a useful analogy only.
4. ISIS Becomes a Virtual Caliphate
Fourth, ISIS primarily becomes a virtual caliphate. The organization has built a formidable and resilient online publishing and production capacity with hundreds of thousands of viewers and subscribers. It may be possible to maintain some form of virtual relationship that promotes the ideals of the group and seeks to inspire people around the globe to conduct attacks on behalf of their association with this virtual entity. In a world that has people enamored with Twitter followers and subscriptions, this may be a viable possibility.
5. ISIS Disperses
Fifth, ISIS disperses back to the various countries from which its adherents came. In this case, those adherents then continue their activities, but now in their native (or adoptive) lands where they can both grow and terrorize new populations seeking greater personal notoriety.
As noted in the opening paragraph, the reality is a sixth way wherein ISIS does some form of all of the above. Some individuals will return to their home countries. Some with the intent of returning back to a "normal" life where they can feel pride at having conducted their personal jihad and adventure tourism and can share those stories with children and grandchildren yet to be born. Others may return and try to spark the jihad in their home or adoptive countries. Others will continue to produce their material online. Others will see no other place to go and they will hole up somewhere and wait it out. Some of them will fight and die in a lonely cave somewhere that no one has heard of or will remember, but others will hope to come forward from these waste places to rekindle their vision of the good life once the attention of the world has faded. Many who have participated in this enterprise believe that they are doing God's bidding even if they cannot articulate where God said it. Understanding this much will help a reader to recognize that whether this was a short-term adventure or a lifetime commitment each person will respond as their circumstances allow to see the fruition of their intention.
ISIS created a business model that I call crowd-sourced terrorism. In this they have demonstrated that it is inexpensive to generate tremendous personal commitment. It only takes a moment to generate fanaticism if the moment is right. That requires few resources and can have a profound impact on a community. So regardless of whether or not ISIS ends this month or this year, this business model - profoundly accepted religious ideology combined with a promise of near instantaneous salvation - will live on.
*ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Sometimes this same group may be referred to as the Islamic State or IS, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or ISIL, or by its Arabic acronym of Da'ash (also written as Da'esh or Da'ish). Regardless of all of the other uses, I always refer to it as ISIS for simplicity sake.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,